Monday, March 28, 2011

The Problem With American Exceptionalism

The concept of American exceptionalism keeps cropping up. It's like those little weeds sprouting out of the dark earth in late March. Makes one wonder who scattered this year's seeds.

In any case, I did some reading on the concept and found this:
Mitt Romney:
Well, first, I support military action in Libya. I support our troops there and the mission that they’ve been given. But let me also note that thus far, the President has been unable to construct a foreign policy, any foreign policy. I think it’s fair to ask, you know, what is it that explains the absence of any discernable foreign policy from the president of the United States? And I believe that it flows from his fundamental disbelief in American exceptionalism. In the President’s world, all nations have common interests, the lines between good an evil are blurred, America’s history merits apology. And without a compass to guide him in our increasingly turbulent world, he’s tentative, indecisive, timid and nuanced.
(The anti-feminist) Counterpunch has a long article on the origins and meaning of the term:
Attributed to Tocqueville in Democracy in America published back in 1835, the concept serves as the justification and fortification for American conservative politics. On one hand the concept is so broad as to practically lose meaning. It has ranged from geographical attributes to resource abundance to immigration numbers to economic systems. In The Myth of American Exceptionalism Godfrey Hodgson writes:
Observing the sheer density of the claims made for the uniqueness of the American experience and the exceptional qualities of American society, however, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that they are motivated at least in part by a wish to believe in them
On one level it’s not difficult to render the idea of American Exceptionalism to the realm of mythology. After all despite America being established in the so called New World its philosophical foundation came from the philosophy of Europe’s Enlightenment and religion. Even the great western frontier expansion was powered by European investment, European markets, and not to mention European immigration. Plus if immigration and diversity are so much a part of the exceptionalism imagery would that not limit the idea of American as one exceptional, unified culture, or would its multiculturalism paradoxically be a big part of its exceptional nature? 
Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset in American Exceptionalism: a Double-Edged Sword broke its meaning down to five terms: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.

Whatever the specific meaning of the term is, just imagine how it will be received abroad by all those unexceptional people. Or think of the most arrogant self-satisfied asshat you know and then think of that asshat crashing your party and telling you that your food stinks, your interior decoration is abominable and your wine is of the wrong vintage.

The other problem with believing too hard in American exceptionalism comes from the resulting inability to learn anything from other countries. If this country is so exceptional nothing happening elsewhere is applicable. And that means having to reinvent the wheel over and over again.